It is one of the most powerful moments in a book full of them: “Tell me yourself,” says Ivan to his brother:
“I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
That exchange is from the chapter “Rebellion” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. For Ivan, who has rebelled against the God of Russian Orthodoxy — the God to whom his brother, the novice Alyosha, intends to devote his life — one argument above all others refutes the notion of a loving Creator: the death of the littlest of these. In the war he is prepared to wage against the Almighty, the innocent dead are Ivan’s most powerful weapon.
Hamas and its apologists have taken up that lesson; through stories and photographs, they are weaponizing their dead. “How can journalists be objective when writing about dead children?” asks Giles Fraser at the Guardian’s website.
“I have been losing my cool,” the journalist writes in his recent piece. “I know that traditional journalism prides itself on maintaining a strict firewall between objective and subjective, between news and comment. . . . But isn’t this just a convenient fiction? I want the paper to write, in big bold capital letters: we hate this f[***]ing stupid pointless war.”
For Fraser, to carry out the journalist’s task — to sit “calmly at my desk turning out more apparently ordered sentences, purporting to run smoothly from one solid proposition to another” — is an affront to the horror of what is taking place in the Holy Land. “Being calmly rational about dead children feels like a very particular form of madness. Whatever else journalistic objectivity is, it surely cannot be the elimination of human emotion.”
The image of journalist-as-automaton is a straw man. Instances Fraser cites of journalists displaying emotion in their reporting — Jon Snow’s report on his recent trip to Gaza, and U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Guinness’s tearful interview with Al Jazeera Arabic — are not automatic journalistic failures. After September 11, after the tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., last year, after Newtown, journalists exhibited emotion on the air — because they, too, are human; because the loss of innocent life tears at the deepest reaches of the soul.
But Fraser has more in mind than removing the stigma against understandable displays of sorrow — because he is not merely upset; he is angry: “When Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, comes on the radio, intoning that false, calm sympathy straight out of the PR handbook, I want to scream.”
Like street performers with their cups, there is a sleight-of-hand at work here. Fraser’s trick is in equating the expression of “human emotion” with his outrage at a particular political target. He clearly — and rightly — mourns the loss of innocent life. Perhaps that is even something to be angry about. But obviously at Israel? Is it so simple?
Where, one might ask, is Fraser’s outrage at Hamas for using Gaza’s Shiva hospital as its military headquarters?
Where is Fraser’s outrage at Hamas for storing its rockets in U.N. schools?
Where is Fraser’s outrage when, despite forewarning from the Israeli military, Hamas orders Palestinians not to leave their homes?
Where is Fraser’s outrage at Hamas’s decision to launch a suicide attack on Israel only 90 minutes into a 72-hour ceasefire?
Where is Fraser’s outrage at the people of the Gaza Strip, who elected a “government” that does these things?
Where is Fraser’s outrage at his fellow journalists — and their editors back home — who, in exchange for access to Hamas’s leaders, refuse to print stories criticizing the group or take photographs casting it in a bad light?
Fraser’s outrage is a consequence of his narrative of the situation, not the other way around. And that is the problem with the type of “emotional” journalism he envisions: It would undercut not the responsibility of the journalist to relay the facts on the ground, but his responsibility to carefully consider what the facts are in the first place.
Every child’s life lost in Gaza is a tragedy. Supporters of both the Israelis and the Palestinians can (and should) recognize that. But to weaponize those deaths for political gain is not the role of a journalist; it’s the role of a propagandist.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.